Music from the Convents of Bologna

One of the most important centers of music in the convents was Bologna. At least 10 collections of music dedicated to nuns (or, in one case, written by one) appeared between the end of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. This in spite of the heavy hand of Gabriele Paleotti, the zealously conservative archbishop, who, like his distant cousin and successor Alfonso, strived to limit music in the convents. Gabriele, in fact, had a list of rules drawn up for the benefit of the local nuns according to which the use of polyphony was strictly limited to feast days (once a year); musical instruments other than the organ, occasionally the bass viol, and the harpsichord inside the cells, were banned; and, perhaps most significantly, musical education from outside (male) teachers was completely prohibited. (Similar rules continued to be published throughout the 16th and 17th centuries–an encouraging sign that they were not being adhered to.)
This series includes compositions dedicated to the Bolognese convents of Santa Cristina and Santa Maria Nuova as well as the convent of San Michele in S. Giovanni in Persiceto (twelve miles from Bologna).

BO 01 3 motets for the Convent of Santa Cristina by A.Banchieri for 4, 5, & 8 voices (1599)

Adriano Banchieri, Bolognese composer, organist, theorist and writer, dedicated his Messa solenne a otto voci of 1599 to Donna Emilia Grassi, choir director, poly-instrumentalist and singer at the Camaldolese convent of Santa Cristina in Bologna. Our edition contains three motets from Banchieri’s collection.

Letamini et exultate, a “Fantasia a 4, per cantare & sonare” is, like many of the pieces in this collection, notated in high clefs, and thus all four parts fall within the range of women’s voices (with the exception of the occasional low d or c, for which ossia alternatives have been provided in the women’s edition). Gaudeamus omnes, scored for five voices, uniquely contrasts four florid parts (SATB), with a tenor cantus firmus. Originally notated in normal clefs, the soprano part falls actually quite low, and so we have made available a transposed version up a fifth to enable an ensemble of women’s voice to perform it. Beata es tu, again printed in high clefs, is an antiphonal Concerto à 8 for a high and a low choir. The first choir fits well for women’s voices, but the bass part of the second is too low for a woman to sing. A possible performance by a female ensemble might thus foresee voices on all of the parts in the high choir, in contrast to the second low choir represented by a soloist on the first voice and instruments (for example viols or organ) playing the other three parts.

BO 02 3 motets for 8 voices by A.Trombetti, G.Fattorini & G.B. Cesena (1589-1606)

Gabriele Fattorini (fl. 1598-1609) served as organist and maestro di cappella at Faenza cathedral near Bologna. His Secondo libro de mottetti a otto voci was commissioned by and dedicated to a musical nun at Santa Cristina in Bologna, Donna Deodata Leoni. The motet Preparate corda vestra is composed for two equal four-voice choirs. The soprano of the first choir is not extant and has been reconstructed for this edition.

Gio. Battista Cesena’s real name was Biondi (fl. 1605-30), but he was better known during his lifetime by the name of his birthplace. Though a Minorite monk and composer of a great deal of sacred music, he does not appear to have held a church post. The dedication of his Compieta con letanie che si cantano Nella S. Casa di Loreto, et motetti a otto voci di Gio. Battista Cesena(Venice, 1606), written by the publisher Giacomo Vincenti, is full of praise for the musical nuns of Bologna, particularly at Santa Cristina. His collection contains eleven pieces for eight voices, almost all of which contrast high and low choirs, as exemplified by the setting of Cantabant sancti.

The celebrated Bolognese composer and cornettist Ascanio Trombetti(1544-1590) was closely associated with musicial nuns, for he taught music at the Bolognese convent of San Lorenzo. Moreover, his daughter Isabella was herself a nun trombonist and organist at the convent of Santi Gervasio e Protasio. His Primo libro de motetti accomodati per cantare e far concerti a 5-8, 10, 12 (Venice, 1589) makes no specific mention of nuns, yet it seems logical to assume that it was this sort of music to which Trombetti would have exposed them during his years of teaching within the convents. Like the motets by Cesena, Regna terrae is also scored two four-part choirs, the first of which is slightly higher than the second.

BO 03 2 motets ad usum sanctimonialium by R. Micheli & G. Banci for 3 & 6 voices (1610-19)

Giovanni Banci dedicated his Primo Libro de Sacri Concerti a Due, Tre, Quatro, e Cinque Voci (Venice, 1619) to Donna Anna Maria Merlini, a nun and singer at the convent of San Michele in San Giovanni in Persiceto (twelve miles from Bologna). What little is known of Banci is found on the title page of this work: he originated from Argenta (near Ferrara) and evidently worked at one time in Bologna. Banci set three separate Litanies for the Blessed Virgin, a popular Marian prayer setting of the time, with an invocation and response structure. The Litany in our edition is originally scored for soprano, alto, three tenors and bass. In our edition for women’s voices, the parts which fall outside the range of female voices (the three tenors and bass) have been transposed up an octave.

Romano Micheli (c. 1575-1659) was born in Rome and worked for a brief time there before embarking on travels to various Italian cities (including Venice, Naples, Ferrara, Bologna and Milan). Micheli published two similar collections of psalms for three voices (SSB) which contain various suggestions for performance, including a transposition of the bass part up an octave for an ensemble of women’s voices, ad usum Sanctimonialium (“for use by the reverend nuns”).

BO 04 Two motets for 3 voices by Giulio Cesare Arresti (1663)

Giulio Cesare Arresti (1625-1704 or later) lived his entire life in his native city of Bologna. There he served as organist at San Petronio for almost 40 years between 1649 and 1699, and as maestro di cappella at various Bolognese institutions. In 1663, Arresti published his Messe a tre voci, con SinfonÏe, e Ripieno ‡ placito, accompagnate da motetti, e concerti, op. 2. He dedicated the collection to Giulia Maria Vittoria Malvezzi, a nun at the monastery of Santa Maria Nuova in Bologna, praising her for her musical and instrumental skills (without, unfortunately, specifying her instrument).

The collection is divided into three sections, each headed by a Mass for 3 voices (CCB) and two violins with basso continuo. Each Mass consists only of the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, and is followed by 2 motets which may be inserted into the Mass as needed. The choice of voices is curious in light of the dedication to a nun, as all but one (Ad cantus) call for a bass voice. The nuns would certainly not have been daunted by the problem of singing bass parts, presumably transposing them into their ranges as we have done here in the case of the edition for women’s voices.